Micro-credentials in 2019: The Ultimate Guide for Educators
Microcredentials are the shorter, sharper learning opportunities that reflect the reality of today’s economy and the future of work.
But with the avalanche of reports, discussion papers, media releases and op-eds in the tertiary education space in the last year, it can be hard to keep up.
Today, we’ll get you up to speed on what’s been happening since we published our last article on micro-credentials in 2018.
Let’s dive in!
Micro-credentialing, digital badges, nano degrees… recap please!
Micro-credentials are short, low-cost, and often online informal learning experiences and mini-qualifications targeted at a specific skill or industry. As such they can be highly relevant and applicable to industry contexts.
Upon completion, a student can often display a digital badge or certification on their resume, LinkedIn, or other online profiles.
Providers around the internet call them a variety of names, such as nano-degrees, micro-masters, micro-subjects, open badges, mini-degrees and more. They are all the same thing – though the confusing language around them can make it hard to pin down.
Micro-credentials started gaining traction after Udacity released “nanodegrees” in 2015, tailored to the training needs of industry tech and telecomms giants like Google. The trend toward industry-tailored learning continues today.
1. Why are micro-credentials so popular now?
The future of work
Short courses aren’t new, and neither is professional development. What is new is the transformations that the workforce is undergoing, thanks to technology, including automation, the gig economy, and online collaboration platforms.
In this changing workforce, people will need to upskill rapidly and continually in response to new and emerging skill sets – which, because they move so quickly, are not covered by Australian institutional frameworks.
Even more traditional occupations like accounting and finance are facing technological disruption, forcing workers to continually upskill or face obsolescence.
In the Candlefox Marketplace, prospective students are upskillers.
The future of learning
So, what does this mean for education? A dramatic shift in how students approach their education, with many quick to hail micro-credentials as the “shorter, sharper” solution.
For young and mature-age students alike, preparing for the future of work does not necessarily mean high school, then a degree program followed by a career. The new reality demands a fluid, adaptable and personalised approach that corresponds to changes in the working environment.
For students this might mean completing a traditional qualification, stacking micro-credentials to create a custom “package”, or a combination of both to maximise employability.
In the Candefox marketplace, we have seen the explosion of the micro-credentials trend first-hand, and data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) supports this.
Enrolments in national training programs has been falling at the same time as a notable upswing in enrolments for shorter skill sets and standalone subjects since 2015.
The NCVER points out that micro-credentials have the potential to replace much in-house training for employers, due to the following benefits:
2. Developments in 2019
Micro-credentials have been picking up steam internationally, with governments around the world moving to integrate them into their education systems.
In the US, more than 10 state education agencies are running official pilot programs for micro-credentials, with 5 more trialling micro-credentials in some form. And according to a report by non-profit Digital Promise, we have reached the tipping point in the development of an “emerging micro-credentialing ecosystem.”
Depending on which way we lean, we could end up with:
Digital Promise have themselves been busy developing a set of micro-credential programs for educators.
They are designed around a common set of traits:
Education is an industry that expects high levels of continuing education from its teachers. Yet educators have only been recognised for formal upskilling and learning. Digital Promise’s modules aim to change that. By formalising achievements, skills and abilities, it seeks to make informal learning more transparent to both employers and teachers.
New Zealand follows Europe
New Zealand has recently implemented official recognition of micro-credentials, after running three successful pilots with different organisations. Rather than becoming part of the training framework, they sit alongside it.
Training schemes offered by non-registered providers, including individual units, can be accredited if there’s evidence a genuine need on the part of the learner – or other stakeholders, such as employers.
Following the lead of Ireland, Scotland and Denmark, New Zealand has recognised micro-credentials as being types of credentials that are defined by their relation to major qualifications.
So, for instance, a credential could be equivalent to a single unit from a Diploma, making it a Level 4 unit. These types of credentials can be stackable into a degree, or stand alone, giving learners more flexibility and pathways into official qualifications, whether they choose to use it or not.
3. The future of micro-credentials in Australia
Meanwhile, Australia’s credentialing system is at risk of falling behind, while others fear that the proliferation of digital badges and micro-credentials, along with unclear language, will cause still more chaos and confusion.
New Zealand’s move has generated predictions across the industry that Australia will follow their example. The Australian Qualifications Framework is currently under review by Victoria University’s Professor Peter Noonan, and there’s speculation that it will incorporate smaller credentials into its accreditation system.
This would then “unbundle” qualifications into smaller units which may then be “rebundled” into other degrees, allowing more flexibility and personalisation – reflecting to what the booming micro-credentials market has told us students want.
The big question is, will the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), the current regulator, introduce a framework that will allow people to integrate microcredentials into their continuing education?
The argument that microcredentials should be incorporated into AQF
Incorporating microcredentials into the existing system may solve some of the issues around standardisation and quality assurance, as well as making them more attractive to students. A discussion paper around the AQF review argues that recognising microcredentials through the AQF would make them part of the existing quality assurance system, which would:
The argument that microcredentials shouldn’t be incorporated into AQF
Insiders aren’t necessarily in agreement, however.
Stay innovative and responsive to industry
Emeritus Professor Beverly Oliver, formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at Deakin raised concerns that the innovative, adaptable nature of microcredentials is at odds with the slow-moving nature of an official framework. “You don’t want every micro-credential provider to go through a review,” she said. “That will stop the whole thing from happening.”
Outdated ‘duration/volume’ measure
A contextual research paper, released in late 2018, flagged the difficulty of using a duration-based measure of learning outcomes when it comes to on-demand learning. In digital learning, users complete units at their own pace, and it no longer makes sense to use the traditional “this unit is equivalent to X amount of study hours” measure.
Effective learning at odds with accreditation systems?
Education consultant Claire Field, reflecting upon technological improvements to the learning process (such as artificial intelligence) found that best practices can be incompatible with the compliance-based framework of ASQA, leading more students to turn outside the accredited sector.
“If we highly regulate workforce learning then a lot of participants will bypass it. There is no gain for people in being part of a highly regulated system.”Emeritus Professor Beverly Oliver, formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at Deakin
What’s likely to happen with the AQF review?
The Australian Qualifications Framework Review was due to be completed in late September, however as of publication, no news has surfaced. Professor Noonan indicated that there was “little appetite” for separate, non-formal qualifications, but had raised the idea of an opt-in, credit-based system.
The best outcome looks to be one that incorporates formal and non-formal accreditation systems which can work together. Liz Johnson, DVC Education Deakin University, is confident that micro-credentials will be incorporated into the AQF once the review is released.
Regardless of official accreditation status, it seems likely that some form of “lifelong learning account” will come into being. Similar programs have already been implemented in Korea, China, Singapore and Europe.
This would enable learners to track their credentials, keep track of learning credits, and communicate training and skills history to potential employers – allowing Australians to better navigate the digital work landscape.
4. Top subject areas and industries for micro-credentials
The surge in microcredentials is concentrated in a few key topic areas and subjects, which have the highest number of enrolments in general:
However technical, quantitative and other “hard” skills are predicted to be on the way out with the advent of machine learning, with demand for higher cognitive skills like creativity, critical thinking, complex information processing predicted to increase.
Even now, 3/4 of employers place equal or more importance on employability skills than they do on technical skills, according to a report by the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.
Information Literacy: A Prime Opportunity
Aside from this, a survey of employers revealed growing opportunities in the information literacy space. Researchers identified the three areas where human resource managers least expect students to have competency:
All three abilities fell under an umbrella category of “critical thinking, using quality information and collaboration”, which also happened to be the most highly valued skills category. The report argued that this makes them prime candidates for higher education providers designing microcredentials, as they will be valuable to both learners and employers.
In general, the survey found that employers are keen for more specific ways to show skills and abilities in recent graduates and potential employees, a gap that micro-credentials are well-positioned to fill.
5. Key Steps for Providers
While policy decisions are still forming, what key takeaways are there for education providers considering adding microcredentials to their suite of offerings?
Professor Oliver made three key recommendations in a recent Deakin Report.
1. Build trust
Agree on a clear definition
Agree on a standard definition and terms across the industry, when possible.
Align micro-credentials to a formal qualification level, with similar time commitment and academic standards, so it can bear credit and possibly lead to entry into a formal qualification.
2. Add value
that the credential provides highly work-relevant skills, or leads to work opportunities.
in terms of time and money spent.
Feed into Recognition of Prior Learning
so that students can use this as a building block for further qualifications.
3. Aim for sustainability
Put resources toward assessment
as this will lead to the integrity and long-term reputation of courses.
Re-use, relicense, cocreate
learning assets to keep costs down
Train industry experts
as adjunct professors
Online or blended mode
is best, since it increases accessibility for mature learners, the people who stand to benefit most from upskilling while remaining in the workforce.
will ensure that credentials are portable, and compatible with online platforms such as job boards and resume sites.
Professor Oliver said that while micro-credentials are not a silver bullet, if designed well they can complement higher education and extend learning past graduation date.
“You’re never going to bring them into the formal education system. But we do want to recognise them and bring them under an umbrella.”
Whatever happens, microcredentials are coming, and the message is clear: employers, employees and students are using them with enthusiasm.
Whether they will complement our pre-existing tertiary education system or disrupt it substantially rests on policy decisions, but it also depends on how education providers design and market micro-credentials in the years to come.
Australia. Dept of Education and Training (DET). 2018. Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework: Discussion Paper. https://www.education.gov.au/australian-qualifications-framework-review-0
Business Council of Australia (BCA). 2018. Future-proof Australia’s post-secondary education and skills system. https://www.bca.com.au/future_proof_australia_s_future_post_secondary_education_and_skills_system.
Department of Education and Training – Document library, Australian Government. 16:11. “Contextual Research for the Australian Qualifications Framework Review.” 16:11. https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/aqf_contextual_research_0.pdf.
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“Lifelong Learning And Reskilling: The Promise Of Micro Credentials | FYA.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www.fya.org.au/2018/09/21/lifelong-learning-and-reskilling-the-promise-of-microcredentials/.
“Making Micro-Credentials Work – for Learners, Employers and Providers | DTeach.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2019. http://dteach.deakin.edu.au/2019/08/02/microcredentials/.
“Microcredentials Could Be a Game Changer for Educators. But Hard Questions Remain. – EdSurge News.” 2019. EdSurge. July 12, 2019. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-07-12-microcredentials-could-be-a-game-changer-for-educators-but-hard-questions-remain.
Raish, Victoria, and Emily Rimland. 2016. “Employer Perceptions of Critical Information Literacy Skills and Digital Badges.” College & Research Libraries 77 (1): 87–113. https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.77.1.87.
“Take Measure of Micro-Credentials.” n.d. Accessed October 16, 2019. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/take-measure-of-microcredentials/news-story/84c5b1346fea2a41371889d21ba9743e.
“Total VET Students and Courses 2018.” 2018, 34. https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0031/6925090/Total-VET-students-and-courses-2018.pdf
Universities, Australian Technology Network of, and PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia. 2018. Lifelong Skills: Equipping Australians for the Future of Work. Deakin: Australian Technology Network of Universities. http://www.atn.edu.au/siteassets/publications/lifelong-skills.pdf.